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Darwin Correspondence Project

Thomas Burgess

As well as its complement of sailors, the Beagle also carried a Royal Marine sergeant and seven marines, one of whom was Thomas Burgess. When the Beagle set sail he was twenty one, having been born in October 1810 to Israel and Hannah Burgess of Lancashire Hill in Heaton Norris, a village in Stockport outside Manchester (The National Archives RG4/422/37/74).

Darwin did not mention him by name in any of his writings, except in his list of the Beagle’s officers and crew copied from the ship’s watch-bill on 24 July 1832 (‘Beagle’ diary p. 81); and he probably never thought about him again until he opened a letter from him in March 1875. It was written from Rainow, a small village in Cheshire on the western fringes of the Peak District. Burgess asked Darwin for his photograph and reminded him of some incidents on the voyage. Firstly he mentioned the eruption of the volcano Osorno in Chile which they witnessed from the bay of San Carlos on Chiloe (‘Beagle’ diary p. 280). Then Burgess referred to the expedition up the Rio Santa Cruz in Argentina, which took place from 18 April to 10 May 1834, and reminded Darwin that they had walked several miles away from the river, and when they came to turn back, Darwin discovered he had left his compass behind. This incident was not reported in his diary.

Although Darwin’s reply is not extant, he obviously wrote back straight away, asking for news of his old comrade. So Burgess replied that after the Beagle returned to England he had purchased his discharge and become a constable in the Cheshire constabulary. Genealogical records show that he married Hannah Fletcher in the early months of 1838, and from the births of their children in the censuses it is possible to follow his career around Cheshire. His eldest daughter, Mary, was born in Stockport and in 1841 the family, with three-month old Eliza, was living in Handforth-cum-Bosden, a couple of miles north of Wilmslow (TNA HO107/99/20/8/11). In 1851, when they were living in Wilmslow, five-year old Thomas had been born in Poynton, five miles east of Handforth, and three-year old Alice and eleven-month old Arthur had been born there (TNA HO107/2162/49/33). Ten years later they had settled in Rainow, ten miles southeast of Wilmslow: eight-year old Henry had been born in Wilmslow, but five-year old Ann was born in Hurdsfield, between Macclesfield and Rainow (TNA RG9/2677/36/13). In 1861 the family appeared relatively prosperous: Burgess was still a policeman, his wife was collecting tolls, and Thomas, Alice, and Arthur were employed as silk piecers, joining together threads of silk broken in the spinning process. Rainow is three miles north-east of Macclesfield, at this period an important centre of the silk industry, and there were several silk mills in Rainow itself.

By 1871 Burgess had retired from the police, but four children were still living at home: Alice, a ribbon weaver, Arthur, a stone mason, Henry, a joiner’s apprentice, and Ann, a silk winder (TNA RG10/3671/34/16). By 1881 the household consisted of Burgess and his wife and their grandson Stephen Orme, aged eighteen, who was a son of Mary Burgess – she had married Stephen Orme sr in 1860 (TNA RG11/3490/34/13). In his second letter Burgess explained that he had never read any of Darwin’s books and he would treasure a copy of one. Darwin complied and Burgess sent a third letter expressing his thanks for the book, although it is not known which title was sent. In this letter Burgess explained that this was the only letter of the three in his own hand – the two earlier letters had been written by a friend ‘who Doubted Some of my Assertions’. Presumably a letter and photograph were not sufficient to convince his friend – only a book by the famous naturalist would do.